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Report: ‘Target’ free school meals

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Report: 'Target' free school meals

Universal free school meals should be rolled out in areas of the country serving the most disadvantaged young people, a former children’s commissioner has said.

Anne Longfield said schools should no longer have to use “sticking plaster solutions” to tackle child poverty as she called for greater investment.

The report from her Centre for Young Lives think tank, in partnership with the Child of the North, contains a series of recommendations on how to reduce the impact of child poverty on millions of children.

It calls for universal free school meals (FSM) to be initially “targeted” at schools in boroughs and wards with the most disadvantaged populations.

Children in state schools in England are currently only entitled to receive FSM if a parent or carer receives one of a number of benefits.

The report calls for “targeted proportionate universalism” to help level up communities with the “most entrenched” poverty.

It says: “This can be done not only at a local authority level, but within individual schools and nurseries. The data already exists to allow councils to identify the schools serving those children in the greatest poverty.

“Universal free school meals should be a long term ambition for all schools, but we should start by initially targeting schools in local areas with the most disadvantaged children and young people.”

The report comes after free school meals were extended to every pupil in state primary schools in London this academic year to help struggling families amid the cost-of-living crisis.

The Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has announced that the policy will run for a second school year.

All children at state schools in England are entitled to free school lunches in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2, but other pupils are not entitled to FSM unless their family is in receipt of benefits.

Currently, families who claim Universal Credit (UC) are only eligible for FSM if their family’s post-tax earnings are less than £7,400 a year.

The report calls for FSM to be expanded to children in all families receiving UC and for automatic registration of eligible families for FSM to be “implemented immediately”.

Nearly one in four (23.8%) pupils at state schools in England were eligible for FSM – the equivalent of two million children – in January 2023, the most recent Government figures show.

The report also suggests that children growing up in poverty are likely to be at “increased risk” of not attending school.

Data from more than 60,000 pupils across the Bradford District, collated by the Connected Bradford project, found that over half (57%) of those identified as persistently absent from school were eligible for FSM.

It also found that children eligible for FSM were three times more likely to become persistently absent at some point over their school career compared to their peers who did not receive FSM.

Ms Longfield, executive chair of the Centre for Young Lives, said child poverty has become the “elephant in the room in Westminster”.

She said: “Schools are on the frontline of the battle against child poverty but are overwhelmed by what is being asked of them.

“We need to give our schools and school leaders the tools – and, crucially, the funding – they need to poverty-proof their schools.”

Ms Longfield added: “Free School Meals should be a long-term ambition for all schools, but we should start by targeting individual schools in local areas with the most disadvantaged children and young people.

“The evidence is clear that investment in the UK’s education system is being squandered because the effects of poverty are not being addressed as an integral part of educational provision.

“Schools should no longer have to use sticking plaster solutions to tackle poverty.”

A Government spokesperson said: “We have extended eligibility for free school meals to more groups of children than any other government over the past half a century and have doubled the number of free school meals since 2010 from just one sixth to more than one third.

“Furthermore, there are generous protections in place to ensure that children who need it keep their free school meal entitlement even if their household circumstances change.

“We are also supporting the most vulnerable with record cost-of-living support worth around £3,700 per household and have halved inflation to help everyone’s money go further, while our Household Support Fund is also helping people with the cost of essentials.”

Published: by Radio NewsHub

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